You hear it on radio, you read it in national and local news, you have to listen to it on a regularly from fellow fans and couch-analysts alike – the Cowboys are going 8-8 or less.
The reason offered? The Cowboys organization did nothing to improve what was a horrendous defense in 2013; many further suggesting that the defense may in fact be worse as a result of losing DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee, the best players on the 2013 defense.
Certainly, there is some truth to that. The Cowboys defense was terrible last year and despite statistical proof suggesting we should see improvement, I understand things can always be worse. But this year is a new year and the Cowboys, contrary to popular belief, actually made several moves in the offseason to remedy their many leaks on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s safe to say the Cowboys didn’t sit on their hands during the offseason.
A concerted effort was made to address the issues of last year, with a predominant focus on correcting their depth issues. Considering that there are only so many moves a team can make in Free Agency/Draft, especially whilst the Cowboys have had to contend with a limited cap, I’d say the Cowboys made quite a few changes on the defensive side of the ball.
Perhaps the real question is the quality of those moves – unfortunately, we will have to wait for the season to unfold to bring out a measuring stick. But at this point, I’m counting on six of the above sixteen players to be significant contributors. Could be more or less, depending on injuries and surprise contributors.
The other aspect of potential improvement this defense experienced to consider is that the Cowboys are in their second year in the attacking 4-3.
By merit of being more comfortable in the new scheme, several returning players should show some type of improvement from last year. Players such as Morris Claiborne, Bruce Carter, J.J. Wilcox, Kyle Wilber, DeVonte Holloman, Orie Lemon, among a few others, are entering the put-up or shut-up phase of their careers. Clearly some will answer in the negative, if not yield the same results of 2013; that is the nature of this sport. But serious odds would be defied if all of them ended up being blank rounds in Marinelli’s revolver.
The last thing that tends to get ignored in the “Cowboys defense is terrible” conversation/debate is that the Cowboys offense doesn’t need as much help as the average NFL offense.
This Cowboys offense will be good to great…with the only caveat being if Tony Romo can stay healthy. It is not outside the realm of possibility for the Cowboys to average above and beyond 28 points per game; in fact, considering they averaged 27.4 in 2013, I would take the over on that easily…possibly higher depending on the stakes.
So while this defense may not be the shutdown/shutout defense that places teams on contender-watch, that’s not exactly necessary for the Cowboys to finally post a winning record after three years and make the playoffs. The Cowboys are absolute contenders within their division, and should be considered by their divisional foes as the team to beat, having posted a 5-6 record in 2013.
Consider the Cowboys 2014 regular season schedule and the offensive/defensive rank each team posted in 2013.
Teams (overall offensive rank / overall defensive rank in 2013):
|49ers (24th / 5th)
Titans (22nd / 14th)
Rams (30th / 15th)
Saints (4th / 4th)
Texans (11th / 7th)
Seahawks (18th / 1st)
Giants (28th / 8th)
Redskins (9th / 18th)
|Cardinals (12th / 6th)
Jaguars (31st / 27th)
Giants (28th / 8th)
Eagles (2nd / 29th)
Bears (8th / 30th)
Eagles (2nd / 29th)
Colts (15th / 20th)
Redskins (9th / 18th)
*Cowboys (16th / 32nd)
Granted, not too many conclusions can be drawn from the above – too many inconsistent variables occur over the course of a season, notwithstanding the fact that each of these teams played a different schedule and played the same teams at different times and different strengths. Furthermore, many of these teams evolved over the offseason and very well could show vast improvement on one or both sides of the ball. By that same logic, many of these teams could also show regression as a result of injury, key contributors lost in the offseason, career slumps or a combination of the three.
However, one argument to be made is that teams that are stronger on the defensive side of the ball and not so much on the offensive side, such as the 49ers, Seahawks, and Giants, will at the very least be a good game for the Cowboys…not necessarily a win, mind you, but you can count on them being close.
The opposition that transversely shows to be a strength on offense and not on defense such as the Bears, Eagles and Redskins, are the games that very well could be decided by who has the ball last in a shootout. Once again, likely still a relatively close game.
The teams the Cowboys really have to be concerned about are teams who prove to be a strong on both sides of the ball like the Saints, Cardinals and (believe it or not) the Texans. Finally, the teams that prove to be neither a strength on offense or defense, the Cowboys should be able to win, such as the Jaguars, Titans and Rams. The only wild card team left is the Colts, who were pretty mediocre on both sides of the ball, which gives them an edge over the Cowboys…for now.
The point is, in games that are close and somewhat evenly matched, it could go either way for the Cowboys. It very well may come down to the head coach with the best in-game management. Clearly Garrett has struggled in this area in the past, however, with the addition of Scott Linehan taking the reins of the offense, in-game management is an area that I am expecting improvement in.
Last year, there were three games in which game management was the deciding factor that led to losses for a Cowboys team that held a lead in the 3rd quarter against the Chargers, Lions, and Packers. The Cowboys win any one of those games, and week 17 would not have mattered; the Cowboys would have gone to the playoffs. Improvement in that area alone, regardless of what was done on either side of the ball throughout the offseason, could be the difference in whether or not the Cowboys finally post a winning record after three years of mediocrity.
To be honest, with the unknown quantities and question marks that literally arise at every position across the defense, it’s difficult for me to confidently predict anything higher than 9-7. But as I argued in a previous contribution, there is a difference between having questions and knowing the defense has not improved.
We are in the zero hour of this season. Expectations should remain tempered. But a losing season is far from being a foregone conclusion.